When cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon ran an inn and restaurant in Arkansas, her skillet-sizzled cornbread was a favorite menu item of hers and her customers. Clearly cornbread is important to her. After writing Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook, she went on to write The Cornbread Gospels; she also likes to feed cornbread to her parrots. So I was prepared to take her cornbread making advice seriously, including her rationale for adding some sugar, at least a little, to the batter. Though I grew up mostly in the North, the cornbread I ate was prepared by my Tennessean grandmother, who had migrated north when she was a young woman. Her skillet cornbread was made with 100-percent cornmeal, making it a bit dry and crumbly, and was sugar-free. Grandma emphatically denounced cornbread made with sugar, and, until now, I too had made it without sugar.
Grandma would probably say “hogwash” on hearing Crescent Dragonwagon’s sugar thesis, but I found it compelling. Crescent says that very freshly ground cornmeal (the day of or after its grinding) is naturally sweet. She thinks that if you’re using cornmeal older than that, which is likely, that a little sugar should be added. What sealed the sugar debate for Crescent was a comment made by Mrs. Clark, one of the local regulars at her restaurant: “Now, to be any good, cornbread should be just a little sweet. Just about as sweet as good sweet fresh corn, right from the garden.” So, I relented. I added a little sugar, but very little. Just enough to round out the flavor, but not to be detectable. I think if I made this cornbread for Grandma, she would accept it as true, old-fashioned Southern cornbread.
(Adapted from Crescent Dragonwagon’s recipe for Old-Fashioned Cornbread in Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread.)
2 tablespoons bacon fat
2 cups stone-ground yellow cornmeal (medium grind)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1½ cups buttermilk
1 large egg
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil
- Preheat the oven to 425°F. As soon as the oven has come to temperature, place the bacon fat in an 8-inch cast-iron skillet and place in the oven.
- In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. Mix well.
- In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the buttermilk.
- In another bowl, whisk together the egg, sugar, and oil, then whisk in the buttermilk.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir together until just combined.
- When the cast-iron skillet and fat is smoking hot (it will take about 10 minutes), remove the skillet from the oven and very carefully tilt the skillet to make sure the sides are coated. Pour most of the fat into the batter. Quickly stir the batter to combine and immediately pour the batter into the hot skillet. Smooth the top with a spatula and immediately put in the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 400°F and bake until golden brown and crusty around the edges, about 30 minutes. Cut into wedges to serve. Makes an 8-inch cornbread
Next Day Cornbread Tip from Grandma
The best way to eat day-old cornbread, or any cornbread that’s not piping hot from the skillet, is to cut a slice in half, generously butter the halves with softened, room temperature butter, and toast under a broiler until the butter is melted and the edges crusty. I like cornbread this way better than fresh.